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We're now more than five months into the coronavirus pandemic, a moment where some schools are reopening; dentists and family doctors are seeing patients again. More businesses are getting back to work, and they're all confronting a familiar problem - N95 masks and other personal protective equipment are still hard to come by, especially for smaller operations without a lot of buying power. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Here's how the shortage of PPE is affecting one nurse practitioner deep in south Texas, where most days the temperature climbs to nearly a hundred degrees. Still, every day, Oralia Martinez and her staff set up a temporary exam room outside her small clinic.
ORALIA MARTINEZ: It's been very challenging for me seeing patients outside in this kind of heat, you know, running my own practice, trying to keep employees, trying to keep them safe.
ROSE: Martinez and her staff have been treating a lot of COVID patients as infections spike in the Rio Grande Valley, and this is their way of preserving masks and other personal protective equipment. While they sweat in full gear outside, the staffers and other patients inside the clinic aren't exposed and don't need as much PPE.
MARTINEZ: I know here in Texas it has hit us really, really hard, and we don't have enough PPE to go around.
ROSE: If this sounds familiar, it should. Just like in March when coronavirus cases spiked for the first time, workers across the country say they still can't find enough PPE. Things like N95 respirator masks, gloves, gowns, thermometers and more are scarce. Demand has remained high, and prices have, too.
Dr. Susan Bailey is president of the American Medical Association.
SUSAN BAILEY: The dramatically increased demand for PPE is not going away anytime soon.
ROSE: Now Bailey says it's not just hospitals, states and federal officials all vying for the same PPE.
BAILEY: Churches, schools, businesses - everyone that's trying to reopen needs PPE, and we're all competing for the same small supply.
ROSE: The AMA has called repeatedly for a massive federal response on the level of the Manhattan Project from World War II. The Trump administration has not done that. Back in the spring, the administration did launch Project Airbridge, which airlifted PPE from overseas before winding down in June, and ordered some domestic manufacturers to ramp up production. Today, the administration insists that complaints about shortages are exaggerated.
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JARED KUSHNER: You heard all these hysterical reports about doctors on the front lines not being able to get masks, not...
ROSE: Here's White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaking to CNBC this week.
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KUSHNER: We created Project Airbridge. We were able to bring in from Asia, I think, you know, hundreds of millions of masks. So the federal government has done a lot to stimulate the supply.
ROSE: The supply crunch has eased for some. Big hospital chains with deep pockets have been able to amass stockpiles of PPE, but smaller buyers say they're still struggling to get what they need.
MEGAN RANNEY: The PPE shortage unfortunately is not going away, and the PPE that is available remains far too expensive for many communities.
ROSE: Dr. Megan Ranney is an emergency physician who teaches at Brown University and the co-founder of Get Us PPE, a nonprofit that was created in March to supply donated PPE to health care workers who still need it, especially those working in smaller operations, including assisted living facilities and community health centers that don't have a lot of buying power.
RANNEY: Many manufacturers are asking that you buy 50,000 or a hundred thousand units of masks or gowns or gloves. A little clinic doesn't need that many units, and they can't afford it. So it really puts PPE out of reach.
ROSE: Schools that are reopening this fall are also struggling to find enough PPE. Robin Cogan is a school nurse in Camden, N.J. She says her own school district is having trouble sourcing protective gear for teachers and staff. And she's heard from school nurses in other cash-strapped districts who've been told to provide their own PPE when classes resume.
ROBIN COGAN: We should not be asking our first responders who are the school nurses to get their own equipment. To me, that's unconscionable.
ROSE: Cogan says she's shocked that the PPE shortage has lasted as long as it has. But like many experts, she's worried that this is the new normal.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
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